Kirill Kovaldzhi

The “New Wave” at the End of an Era


Evgeny Bunimovich

Where Has the Space Disappeared To?


Patrick Henry
A Leap into Emptiness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yury Arabov

Nina Iskrenko

Vladimir Druk

Ivan Zhdanov

 

Yuliya Nemirovskaya

Mark Shatunovsky

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Aleksei Parshchikov

Aleksandr Eremenko

Sergei Gandlevsky

Vladimir Aristov

Evgeny Bunimovich

 

 

 

            The “New Wave” at the End of an Era

 

            It was the end of the 1970s. Twenty years had already passed since the noisy, brilliant appearance of Evtushenko, Voznesensky, Akhmadulina and Okudzhava. Poetry burst into the life of the country like a fresh gust of wind, and the hearts of millions avidly opened to welcome the living word. Enormous halls and stadiums overflowed, mostly with young people, enthusiastic poetry fans. And poetry grew larger than itself (as Evtushenko said at the time, “the poet in Russia is more than a poet”). This phenomenon was less artistic than social and political. The authorities were not alarmed for nothing.

            In the West it would probably be difficult to imagine the role that fell to literature in our country. For literature under totalitarianism assumes an uncharacteristic, unprecedented influence. Dictatorial regimes fear the printed word and strive to co-opt or destroy it. As a result some writers became quasi-government officials, basking in fame and privilege, while others perished or were hunted as enemies of the state.

            After Stalin’s death the regime began to weaken, and non-conformist literature gathered strength. This literature seemed the sole oasis of living speech amid a desert of dead words, political cliches and ideological incantations. The time-serving official writing of those years was eclipsed by honest literature that was at times too pointedly publicistic, to the detriment of esthetic ideals.

            After Khrushchev’s fall in the mid-60s the climate changed again; the atmosphere thickened and stagnated. A new generation of poets was nipped in the bud, and things continued like this for some fifteen years. Access to the surface was blocked to the new generation, but this didn’t mean those poets didn’t exist or that the country’s creative powers had diminished. They matured and their numbers swelled as they awaited their moment.

            The last years of Brezhnev’s regime were rightly called a period of stagnation. The authorities bustled about trying to revive the system with “artificial respiration.” The Moscow Komsomol1 committee attempted to activate — and to enlist — creative young people. In the spring of 1980, with help from the Union of Writers, literary workshops were created for young poets, prose writers, playwrights and critics. One of the poetry workshops was offered to me. I willingly accepted, not only because I worked for a magazine, “Yunost,”2 whose focus suited the request, but also out of personal inclination. Shortly after graduating from the Moscow Literary Institute, I organized a literary group in Moldova that I led for five years or so. So the return to workshops was a sort of return to my youth. 

            Workshops were normally formed on the mentor-pupil model. I preferred not to lead, but rather to encourage individual traits and an exchange of opinions. During the first few years I also promised no one that their work would be published so that only those who unselfishly loved poetry would attend, not those who simply loved the notion of being poets. All this led to a creative atmosphere in which candor reigned; honest subjectivity and love of art for art’s sake. And freedom. The freedom to judge a comrade of the pen and the risk of exposing oneself to the group’s judgment. This obviously differed from the situation in official literature, governed by a rigid hierarchy, its own “generally accepted” rules of the game, artificial authorities and servile criticism. This difference attracted young poets to the workshop. The workshop’s membership was fluid, but at its center a stable core took shape. My guiding principle was to have none: tolerance toward risky creative quests, breadth of artistic approaches, and interest in the possibilities of their development even when they didn’t inspire much faith.

            The fledgling “new wave” was an artistic protest against the stagnation in art and society. A new wave whose novelty lay in that it belonged to the future, but at the same time was fated to complete the long Soviet period in Russian poetry.

            The new wave poets were fundamentally “other.” Unlike their predecessors — from apologists to dissidents — these young poets no longer responded to the fundamental question: “yes or no”. They represented something akin to Pushkin’s line: “Get away from me — what business / Does a peaceful poet have with you!”3

            The exhaustion of social utopia, the ruling ideology, was expressed in this conscious or intuitive position. Talented young poets simply gave up on the delimitations of their elders; they distanced themselves. The force of repulsion in the last years of stagnation was so great that many withdrew into themselves, sank into their own individual worlds, deeper and more alluring than the external world. They strove to grasp the unity of the transient “I” and the perpetual universe. A particularly serious philosophical “metametaphorical” poetry arose, without the shadow of a smile or simplicity — almost an esoteric poetry (Ivan Zhdanov, Vladimir Aristov, Aleksei Parshchikov, Mark Shatunovsky). Others were carried to the opposite extreme, a parodic call to “common sense” turned inside out. Here the “anti-lyric” came to the fore — dirty tricks, masks, the scornful taunts of intellect outraged by dull-witted reality (Nina Iskrenko, Vladimir Druk, Igor Irtenev, Aleksandr Levin). A middle ground established itself no less powerfully, a distinctive intellectual and ironic current (Aleksandr Eremenko, Evgeny Bunimovich, Timur Kibirov, Viktor Korkiya).

            We met at the editorial offices of “Yunost’” magazine on the Garden Ring in the center of Moscow near the Mayakovsky monument, where the celebrated meetings of the 60s-generation poets were held during the “thaw” that followed the unmasking of Stalin. But we felt like a solitary torch-bearer in the midst of a dispiriting, motionless epoch.

            At nearly every meeting new faces appeared. Unknown young men and women staked their long-awaited claim to our attention. The influx of creative energy and the workshop’s intellectual aura scared away the graphomaniacs.

            The invariable head of the workshop was Evgeny Bunimovich, a young math teacher and an intelligent, subtle poet. In the blink of an eye he grew up and became not only my friend but the co-leader of the workshop.

            We felt the distant but scorching presence of Joseph Brodsky. Poets from other countries and cities visited us (Kenzheev, Dragomoshchenko, Gendelev) and we traveled to Perm (to see Kalpidi and Drozhashchikh).

            After five years or so the workshop’s stable core formed the Poetry Club. By that time I no longer thought it appropriate to take part in meetings, for the club had no need of a “leader” or “representative of the older generation.” And the time had come to publish. In this endeavor I tried to help where possible. I’ll mention two important events of 1987.

            That spring a selection of poetry by the workshop’s most significant poets appeared in “Yunost’” under the title, “Experiment Booth.” The publication produced a furor, and the critics of Pravda, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Literaturnaya Rossiya and Nash Sovremmenik fell upon the debutants. At that moment the new wave became a fact of contemporary literature. Poetry continued to appear in “Yunost’” and was picked up by other publications.

            The furor was fed by the club’s first Moscow-wide public reading in an auditorium at the Dukat factory. The newspaper Znamya observed: “...the delicate aficionados of poetry stormed the back door and the windows of the workers’ club like rock fans at the concert of a touring idol.”

            TV cameras turned up, and the audience was intoxicated by a four-hour poetic, artistic and musical extravaganza. MC duties that evening fell to me. It seemed this was the triumph of Russian poetry’s new wave.

            Unpleasantness ensued the very next day. I was summoned by my superiors for an explanation, and the footage shot by the TV crew was never shown. Soon the new wave poets were invited to the Writers’ Union to tell their story and, ostensibly, for “a discussion of their work.” Another minor scandal broke out when Yuly Gugolev read his poem containing the line: “I raped my father” — a line that outraged his “elder comrades” and prodded them to take frightened “measures.” But the times had already changed forever. The case against the new wave had no serious consequences. The ideological empire had just four years to live...

            The so-called socialist system disappeared along with its prohibitions, replaced by the freedom to say and publish anything (at the author’s expense). The 90s rolled around with unprecedented legalization of poetic diversity.

            But no popular poetry boom occurred. The more access they had to the wealth of poetry, the more distracted the public became. People found other, more urgent interests; alas, mostly economic. Homo Sovieticus suffers to this day from a crisis: the transplantation of his soul.

            I find it impossible to reconcile myself to the premature death of Nina Iskrenko. Brilliantly talented, audacious Nina — she was youth itself, prepared for the fame that should have been just around the corner. In Nina there was something triumphant, over-conquering: a challenge to sentimentality, conventionality, hypocrisy. A breath of novelty, of freedom from everything inert and old-fashioned. She was the soul of the Poetry Club, an eccentric, shocking inventor, by nature avant-garde. Then suddenly an incurable disease, death, a funeral service in a small church on the outskirts of Moscow, burial in the spirit of our distant forebears.

            A windy February day in 1995. At the grave Voznesensky, Arabov, Bunimovich, Aristov, Prigov, Zhdanov, Rubinshtein, Shatunovsky. Parshchikov appeared after a long absence in America. Poets, well-known writers — none of Nina’s generation could any longer be called young. On that mournful day they seemed to have aged. For the first time death struck their ranks and fixed their generation once and for all in the historical monolith. Something ended, passed away. Everyone sensed this...

            Now at the end of the 90s a period of often painful creative self-determination and “piece-work” has set in. But the salutary influence of the new wave continues to show itself, especially in the gravitation of the new young writers to intellectual poetry enriched with a breadth of cultural associations. Esthetic motifs have perhaps grown stronger on the one hand, and on the other, anti-esthetic upsurges accompanied by a mood of catastrophe. But that’s the subject of another essay. I’ll just say that the workshop has not closed. “Which means someone must need it,”4 as Mayakovsky said.

            But we must face the truth. Before us lie an obvious crisis of poetry (and of literature as a whole) and the most difficult conditions for the development of new talent. However we might direct our anger at pulp writing, it has gained a quantitative victory. The market has its own rules.

            But this is only half the battle. Literature’s most potent rivals have ensconced themselves in nearly every home: television, VCR, the computer with CD-ROM and access to the Internet. An unbounded stream of easily available information rushes over former readers. Poetry for epicures? Or are writers simply not needed?

            That’s just it — they’re needed more urgently than ever. For in the beginning was the Word. And in the end will be the Word.

            Man, society and the nation cannot fully exist without an attempt at self-understanding. But understanding comes only thanks to talent, to genius, capable of speaking for us all. Television, video and computers cannot do without an inspired stratum of the culture, borne primarily by the word.

            “Average” literature has perished. The lowest forms — vulgar, commercial — have multiplied. And “high” literature has risen even higher, become elitist, intellectually self-sufficient, squeamishly scornful towards the mass audience. But human and humane art — that is, normal art — will nevertheless remain the center of spirituality.

            I flatter myself with the hope that the poets who passed through my workshop and the Poetry Club will always remain true to the word, whatever their situation.

            Poetry, magnet-like, isolates chosen souls from the amorphous mass, ignites their energy for creative action, and directs them toward a goal unknown to us. Only the writer dares try to prove that every human “individual” is the Universe. The path to the meaning of life and to God lies through the cult of man, and only talent extracts harmony from chaos.

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1) The Komsomol was the Soviet Communist Party’s official youth organization.

2) “Yunost’” translates as “Youth.”

3) From Aleksandr Pushkin’s 1828 poem “The Poet and the Crowd” (Poet i tolpa).

4) Reference to a line from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Listen!” (Poslushaite!): “If the stars are lit up — / does it mean someone needs this?”

 

Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © 2000 Talisman Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

 

This translation first appeared in Crossing Centuries: The New Wave in Russian Poetry, a new anthology of contemporary Russian poetry in English translation from Talisman House, Publishers. For more information about the anthology, visit the Talisman House website at — www.talismanpublishers.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

          Where Has the Space Disappeared To?

 

            Not so long ago1 the intellectual 'cul-tourist' and postmodernist, Aleksei Parshchikov, returned to Moscow for the summer holidays from Stanford, methodically assimilating the discrete structures of existence.

            At one time, a millennium or even just a decade ago, we were young and met often, living in the tiny foxholes of socialist society in southwestern Moscow.  One bitterly cold winter day I left Parshchikov's and got on the city bus.  I had only one stop to travel, but in that distance all the endless expanse of Russia was compressed.

            At first there were the parallelepipeds of the Parshchikovian micro- region, then snow-covered fields, suddenly a small church on a hill, and further — dark woods, then there reappeared the snowy flatness of the plain, and finally, my microregion, with the same multistorey parallelepipeds, arranged in a different disorder.

            This last time we met at a fashionable literary seminar, entitled "The Postmodern,” in which we were less participants than exhibits, objects.  Parshchikov had crossed the ocean, I had merely returned from Paris, and we met in the center of Moscow, but the sensation of space had vanished.  Where had it disappeared to?

            My generation began to write during the death-pangs of the communist myth, to the savory unisexual kisses of General Secretaries, when the poetry of Russia was divided into two distinct currents:  official poetry, which was required to say “Yes” to the ideological absurdity of the surrounding environment; and dissident poetry, required, likewise, to say “No” in chorus.  The best of these poets became adept at saying “Yes” in such a way that “No” shone through, but even they did not notice how they were required to work on this given plane between fixed poles.

            “New wave,” “other poets,” “parallel culture,” “citizens of the night,” “the Soviet underground”; what won't they call the generation of poets who arose on the verge of the 80's, and broke free from the strong magnetic field, with its inevitable "+" and "-", into a different dimension, thereby acquiring a new volume and degree of freedom.  They advanced from the celebrated “Yes” and “No,” from the classic questions of the Russian intelligentsia — "What Is to Be Done?" and "Who Is to Blame?" — to the ultimate, universal questions of existence:  internal questions.  As Lev Tolstoi remarked, the true doors for the resolution of questions open "only on the inside" (this citation is not found in Tolstoi's writings, but in some article whose subject I do not recall).

            Such were the ethics of the "new wave"; they were, however, also an esthetics.  As gradually became clear, we were postmodernists, but our postmodern was intuitive, detected in the atmosphere; it was in the air at the time, not found in books or heard in university lectures.  "I don't know what postmodernism is, although I sense that I belong to it," wrote Yury Arabov in the 1987 manifesto "The Realism of Ignorance."

            I would point out that it makes sense to interpret the parallelism of "parallel culture" not according to Euclid, but rather Lobachevsky, who described how not one but an infinite multitude of parallel lines pass through a single point of origin.  The explanation (also mathematical) of this is contained in that same manifesto by Arabov:  "In our opinion, twice two cannot equal four, because this could never be.  The product of twice two is determined by everyone for his own purpose."  With purely poetic license Arabov pays no heed to the contradiction between "in our opinion" at the beginning of this statement and "everyone for his own purpose" at its end. 

            And yet, in this contradiction lies the explanation of the rapid rise of the different schools within the "new wave,” and of the inevitability of their disintegration, already evident today. 

            The Poetry Club, which sprang up in Moscow in 1986, became a significant alternative to official literature.  It united an enormous variety of poets from the new stylistic currents of the 1980s:  metametaphorists, conceptualists, polystylists, and others.

            The metametaphorists (Ivan Zhdanov, Akeksei Parshchikov, Vladimir Aristov, Mark Shatunovsky, Konstantin Kedrov) oppose to the sham simplicity, pedantry, and bloatedness of the official poetic model a departure to another world, in which it is impossible to distinguish the waking from the dreaming state, molecules from galaxies, yesterday from tomorrow.  All of these are present simultaneously in their verse, mutually reacting and being transformed, and causing each word to mean more than it had before its inclusion in the metametaphoric text.

            The reactions of the conceptualists (Dimitry Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Igor Irtenev, Timur Kibirov, Mikhail Sukhotin, and others) to the official organs was outwardly different from that of the metametaphorists.  Their poetry is characterized by constant intellectual and moral provocation, the baring of the metallic carcass of ideological monuments, an attack on the mythology of the contemporary world and Soviet society in particular, play with clichés and stereotypes that have faded and run together with constant usage, and crazy space in which context is more significant than text and the word means nothing at all.  Many listeners go no further than the first comic and parodic level; they do not sense the underlying tragic cause of this debilitated spate of words.  And it is this very audience that provides the conceptualists with their noisy success at readings, exhibitions and performances.

            It is as difficult to give a pure example of the slippery essence of polystylistics, the third noteworthy trend in "new wave" poetry, as it is to come up with a list of its adherents, for to do so runs counter to the very essence of the aesthetics of poly-stylism, its all-embracing nature.  Anyone seeking elucidation of this point should consult Nina Iskrenko's poem, "Hymn to Polystylistics".

            In the polystylists’ attempt to construct a new harmony from confusion, chaos, and the heterogeneity of objects, it is easy to discern a link with both the metarealists and the conceptualists.  This link consists in the conceptual usage of clichés of mass-consciousness and the simultaneous appeal to all the geological strata of culture.  The thinking of a metametaphorist poet could be represented in the form of a winding spiral, compressing and condensing space and time into the text. The poetic work of a polystylist could also be represented as a spiral, but one that is unwinding, seizing all new shades of thought with each spire, and expanding into the entire universe.

            The complex geography of the new poetic wave is not fully subsumed under the three headings outlined above.  Polystylistic methods, absurdist moves, and the thickness of metametaphors are also found in the work of other "new wave" authors, such as Aleksandr Eremenko, Sergei Gandlevsky, Yury Arabov, Viktor Korkiya, and in my own work. While these authors attach themselves in varying degrees to the above-mentioned currents, they each follow their own course. 

            What is the situation today?  Gone are the first readings of the Poetry Club in overflowing halls with the distinct smack of forbidden fruit, scandal, persecution, and rigid police cordons.  Harsh criticism, direct accusations and attacks appeared in the official press, but they only further aroused interest.  Sensational group publications of the poets in the Poetry Club came out in newspapers with circulation in the millions, and sacks full of enthusiastic and disturbed letters arrived in response.

            Passions gradually eased, serious and extensive publications of the "new wave" poets appeared, and in various countries the first books came out.  Literary critics have moved from evaluative articles to interpretation of the phenomenon called "new literature.”

            In this environment the new literary wave in Russia found itself once more in a unique situation, as it suddenly encountered competition from all of world literature. Following the recent abolition of censorship, Russian readers are for the first time reading such authors as Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, Pasternak and Borges, Orwell and Joyce, and they are reading them concurrently with "new wave" writers, on the pages of the same journals and collections.

            Today, by a stroke of fate, everything has overlapped.  As my generation bids farewell to youth, no single path has emerged; rather, each writer has found his own.  We have also parted with context.  Alas, my generation is not the first free generation, as it seemed to us, but rather the last generation of Soviet poetry, closing the tragic and farcical circle.  The realities of Soviet society will fade and grow shabby, those things with which, through denial, annoyance, or the refusal to participate, we were linked, as it turns out, quite strongly...

            Prohibition and persecution no longer have any status.  The publications, appearances, and festivals of the "new wave" are an appreciable, constitutive force in the literary life of Russia.  The literary process in Russia is becoming normal.  But can the literary process really be normal ?

            Not only the "new wave,” but all of Russian poetry now seeks its place.  Accustomed for centuries to substitute itself for politics, religion, philosophy, journalism, shows and circuses, today the poetry of Russia yields to politicians, religious leaders, erotic competition, economic programs, and journalistic essays; it seeks, perhaps for the first time, to find its own territory, and to form its own reader, one elected and summoned, qualified and discriminating.

            Confusion can be felt in interviews, pronouncements, and texts.  The esthetics of the postmodern have been exhausted.  The ethics of unhappiness have likewise been exhausted.  The spirit of the times has changed with the epoch.

            During the putsch of August, 1991, the "new wave,” too, stood before the Russian "White House.”  There is, however, no adequate language to enable the new literature to describe those days, nor the events of the present moment.

            Stylistics and poetics are eroding. Everyone must be prepared to move ahead on his own, and this is fruitful.  Who now isn't occupied with this very task?

            Eremenko is organizing exhibitions of prison artifacts.  Shatunovsky is writing a novel, Parshchikov a quasi-scientific work about our youth.  Korkiya is writing political plays and trading in cement.  Arabov is writing scripts for poetic films, and I these notes, some articles and essays...  Still and all, where in the world has the space disappeared to?  The devil only knows.  But only excruciating individual effort will make it possible to find it again.

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 1) This essay was written in December 1991.

 

Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © 2000 Talisman Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

 

This translation appeared in Crossing Centuries: The New Wave in Russian Poetry, a new anthology of contemporary Russian poetry in English translation from Talisman House, Publishers. For more information about the anthology, visit the Talisman House website at — www.talismanpublishers.com

           

 

 

 

 

            A Leap into Emptiness

            On a dreary day in February 1995, the center of Moscow’s literary world was the ramshackle, red-brick Church of St. Sergei Radonezhsky, sitting like a colorful mushroom amid the slapdash, scattered concrete of apartment blocks in the far-flung microregion of Bibirevo.

            Writers from three generations gathered that day to attend the funeral of the poet Nina Iskrenko, who had passed away at the age of 44 on Valentine’s Day. As Yuri Arabov remarked during the long car journey to Bibirevo from the city center, Nina had brought all her friends together one last time.

            Many of those friends belonged to Moscow’s Poetry Club, a loose and disparate group whose members — conceptualists, metarealists and polystylists — would have been dispersed by sheer centrifugal creative energy were it not for the gravitational pull of Nina Iskrenko.

            With her passing, the Poetry Club, a driving force in Russian avant-garde poetry for a decade, also passed into history.

            In accordance with Orthodox tradition Iskrenko’s friends gathered in late March to mark the fortieth day since her death. They returned to the small auditorium of the Mayakovsky Museum, one of Iskrenko’s favorite places to read, and the site of some of the Poetry Club’s most memorable evenings.

            But on that evening, a sense of weary grief prevailed. Without Iskrenko, whom he called “perhaps the most significant poet of my generation,” satirist Igor Irtenev said with evident regret that “the Poetry Club existed — now we can probably say this in the past tense, because any efforts to reanimate it without Nina I think would be touching, naive, simple and still-born. She is gone, and our youth has gone with her. The club has assumed the existence of a legend.” The Poetry Club appeared just once more as a group, when, in February 1996 — the first anniversary of Iskrenko’s death — its members  came one last time to the Mayakovsky Museum.

            On a personal level the Poetry Club has survived. Many of its members remain close friends, meeting socially, attending each other’s readings and book parties. But as a literary group the club began to lose cohesion along with the whole of Soviet reality in the early 1990s. Nor was the Poetry Club alone in this. The infancy of the Russian Federation has been characterized not by strong groupings, but the splintering and withering of old associations.

            "Although the fate of the nation changed in 1991, no new generation of writers formed as a result. The process at work is not generational, but one of individualization,” Kirill Kovaldzhi has said. “The younger poets do not seem to want to gather beneath a common roof. What happened in 1991 was less a turning in our history than a leap into emptiness, because Russia has never known such a lengthy period of intellectual freedom.”

            Kovaldzhi led the poetry workshop that in 1986 gave birth to the Poetry Club, and he continues to conduct a workshop for young poets in Moscow.

            But Iskrenko’s generation is no longer young. Raised in the years of stagnation, these writers developed in more or less active opposition to an official culture that appalled them and a system geared to keep them down. Nevertheless, their conception of the writer and of literature owed much to Soviet experience; on one hand poetry was published in enormous runs, on the other poets were silenced or imprisoned.

            Delivered from their old adversary, many of these writers found themselves disoriented, but not all. Perhaps the best known writer of this generation, Dmitry Prigov, thrives in the current confusion. A popular poet and cultural ambassador in the West, Prigov has become a leading tusovshchik, almost a cult figure, in Russia, mastering the rules of the emerging literary market.

            But an equally important figure, Ivan Zhdanov, has been buffeted by the new market. During a trip a few years ago to his native Gorny Altai, Zhdanov was invited to read his verse in the symphony hall at Barnaul, the regional capital. The hall was packed, a rare event these days, and the poet was pleased. But when he went to collect his honorarium, he found to his amazement that the federal tax service had skimmed 40 percent off the top.

            To Oleg Pavlov, a novelist in his late twenties recently nominated for the Russian Booker Prize, the various writers of Iskrenko’s generation look much the same: the new literary nomenklatura, defined, or deformed, by their opposition to Soviet culture.

            "We came along at the right time," Pavlov said. "We read Solzhenitsyn, Platonov and Nabokov as young writers, when we needed to, and we didn't have to scurry around with typed, samizdat copies. I read The Gulag Archipelago in Novy Mir, calmly lying on my sofa, drinking coffee and having a cigarette.” Many former Poetry Club members have gone on to prominence as critics and literary commentators. Many have also been forced to abandon literature as a professional pursuit. One, Yevgeny Bunimovich, has even become a Moscow city alderman.

            All have had to come to terms with the diminished role of poetry, and of literature generally, in post-Soviet Russia. Perhaps nothing demonstrates that declining influence more dramatically than the fate of the literary journal Novy Mir. Under the leadership of editor Sergei Zalygin Novy Mir  spearheaded the intellectual revolt of the perestroika years, publishing the work of formerly banned writers from the Soviet Union and abroad, along with essays on politics and economics that challenged the founding principles of the Soviet state.

            Circulation in the late 1980s soared to some 2.6 million, the highest in Russian history.

            By the mid-1990s the circulation of Novy Mir had dropped to 22,000, and Zalygin found himself criticized for failing to maintain the journal’s place on the cutting edge.

            “Many people in Russia and overseas now attack Novy Mir, saying we are not the journal we once were. But we don’t create literature, we merely publish it,” he said in late 1996. “These critics became accustomed to the role we played during perestroika. But no one can play that role any longer.”

            The philosopher Igor Chubais — older brother of Anatoly, the on-again-off-again economics chief in the Yeltsin administration — has said that contrary to popular belief there is no freedom of speech in Russia. Rather, Russians now have freedom from speech because the Yeltsin regime, in a complete reversal of Soviet policy, could not care less what its citizens, writers included, have to say.

            As a result of this indifference, the government has allowed literature, once the most policed of the arts, to develop or degenerate according to its own internal logic, and to find its place in Russia's collapsed and cutthroat economy without subsidies of any significance.

            Iskrenko received a Yeltsin Prize in 1994. The meager stipend that came with it, she joked, just covered the cost of a new refrigerator.

            Most writers wouldn't have it any other way. Despite the current hardships, as publishing houses cut their lists and journal subscriptions bottom out, Russian literature is finding its level, and work of the highest caliber is being written.

            Blindness to the thriving literary activity around them led many critics to proclaim a "crisis" in Russian literature after the fall of communism. The Economist notoriously pronounced in December 1994 that "the days of serious writing" in Russia, "whatever kind it may be, seem for the time being to be over."

            “Serious writing is done. But it is left in authors’ drawers, thrown unread in publishers’ rejection trays or put out in small-circulation reviews,” the newspaper opined.

            In fact, poetry is now more widely published than ever before in Russia, and if book runs and journal subscription lists seem small, the expectations engendered by Soviet giganticism must be taken into account. Average runs of approved literature in the Soviet Union were often 100,000 and more, but this neither meant that the books ever sold, nor that they were significant literary achievements.The Economist reached its gloomy verdict after perusing the paperbacks on offer in Moscow’s outdoor bookstalls and consulting several best-seller lists. Needless to say, books of contemporary poetry didn’t figure prominently in either place. Not much poetry sells in airport gift shops, either.

            But the reader of poetry in Moscow, and increasingly in the provinces, can find the work of his contemporaries on the shelves. Sales aren’t swift, but few poets now expect to make a living from their writing. Then again, few avant-garde poets of Iskrenko’s generation ever did. Once barred from print, they now find the presses more than happy to publish their work; the problem is finding someone to pay the printing costs.

            This situation might not sound at all surprising to poets in the United States.

            "I think this is a splendid time for poetry. The prestige which writers formerly enjoyed has largely disappeared, and the prestige of poets most of all. As a result, only those who truly need to write poetry still do so. Today you can't build a career as a poet, or gratify your ego, or make a political statement. You produce a text, and that's it,” Bunimovich has said.

            For the Poetry Club writers the world has turned inside-out since the putsch attempt in 1991 when they rallied around the White House. Once shunned by the literary establishment, they now find themselves in the unaccustomed role of established writers. The proof is in the school books, as the poet Mark Shatunovsky found when his young daughter several years ago showed him her Russian literature primer. There he found the work of many old “new wave” friends, but not his own work. “Aha,” he said, “so they’re all official writers now. But I’m still in the underground.”

 

Copyright © 2000 Talisman Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

 

This translation first appeared in Crossing Centuries: The New Wave in Russian Poetry, a new anthology of contemporary Russian poetry in English translation from Talisman House, Publishers. For more information about the anthology, visit the Talisman House website at — www.talismanpublishers.com